Riddle of the hours

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
Primary heads are in a quandary about the advent of planning, preparation and assessment time. Phil Revell reports

The September deadline is looming large for primary headteachers faced with putting the final phase of the workforce remodelling agreement into practice.

In September teachers will be entitled to planning, preparation and assessment (PPA) time. This entitlement has long been a fact of life for secondary teachers, and the extension of "non-contact time" to the primary sector was one of the jewels of the 2001 package agreed between teaching unions and the Government.

But many primary heads are worried about the feasibility of PPA time, and some are even prepared to break the law rather than disadvantage their pupils.

"I don't have the money to do this," says Brendan Hassett, head of Dolphinholme Church of England primary, in Lancashire.

The argument is not just about resources - there are also moral and philosophical hurdles. Most refuseniks argue that the only way to make PPA a reality is to use unqualified staff in place of teachers - a line they are simply not prepared to cross.

"My classroom assistants have told me that they do not want to do this because it is not their job," says Mr Hassett. "There are some very competent teaching assistants, but if they had wanted to become teachers they would have trained to be teachers."

He is also unhappy about the morality of paying someone a much lower rate for the same job. He was a delegate at last month's National Association of Head Teachers' conference, where the association's executive was roundly attacked for its failure to extract the necessary resources from the Government.

Chris Williams, head of Old Sodbury primary school, in Gloucestershire, said he was prepared to break the law rather than put the agreement into practice. He said he was "sick and tired" of being asked to solve the problem through creative staffing or budgeting.

"It's not realistic," he told The TES. "I've discussed this with my staff - my assistants are already fully utilised. We have mixed-age groups and my teachers chose to have TAs supporting them in class. I don't have the money to employ additional staff."

Jack Hatch is one of the NAHT executive members facing the flak from members, but he remains a solid supporter of the agreement.

"We should be in the tent because I don't think we are going to influence the agenda outside the agreement," he says.

Mr Hatch is head of St Bede's primary, Bolton, where teachers will have PPA time in September. The school has put most of the agreement in place already.

"I started working towards this agenda more than 10 years ago," he says.

He uses specialist teachers and support staff to free up regular teachers, and has trained teaching assistants for work with literacy and numeracy.

Teachers' PPA time is delivered through a mix of short blocks in the day, and longer group sessions every half-term.

Mr Hatch understands the problems some heads face, particularly those in schools where numbers are falling.

"But falling rolls don't just happen," he says. "And heads have to be prepared to do some forward planning. People have to wrestle with these problems. What they shouldn't do is carry on living beyond their means, because that leads to disaster."

The National Remodelling Team is upbeat about the state of play. It says dissident heads are a small minority and that schools have always used non-teachers to take some lessons.

DiAnne Smith, a secondary head seconded to the team, says: "Heads have always used their professional judgement. We have always used non-qualified staff - sports coaches, peripatetic arts and music teachers and outside speakers."

Ms Smith is head of the Admiral Lord Nelson school, in Portsmouth, where support staff have been used to cover for teachers for some time.

"It's a matter of recognising the talents people have," she says. "The heads I've spoken to do not believe that using support staff diminishes learning."

While she recognises that some primaries will find it tough, she also believes there are many potential benefits.

"Primary teachers are often expected to be all-round experts - using arts, music and sports specialists can enhance the curriculum," she says. "Some may not be fully aware of the range of options. Have they gone through the change-management training? Have they engaged the school with the agenda?"

One source of help is the National Remodelling Team website, but heads of small rural primaries will search in vain for case studies that match their circumstances. Of the few cited, one is from the Department for Education and Skills' original "pathfinder" project, mention of which raises an ironic laugh from primary heads who are all too aware of the generous funding enjoyed by the pathfinder schools.

Another is from a 220-pupil school in Solihull, an average-sized rather than small school. There is a small-school example (see box), but while welcoming the remodelling team's advice, Christina Hibbins, head of Braywood school in Maidenhead, Berkshire, says she will still face problems.

"Extending the hours of my part-time staff was going to cost me the same as employing a teacher - which I can't afford," she says. "I'll still face budgeting problems in September."

Resources are a problem for many heads, and one that the remodelling team still needs to address. Most heads interviewed by The TES said they would do their best to provide PPA time in September, but the crunch will come next year. If budget fears are realised, 2006 will see many schools slide into deficit.

But for some the sticking point is what led the National Union of Teachers to refuse to sign the deal in the first place: substituting support staff for teachers.

At the NAHT conference, the pro-agreement heads argued that teaching is more than classroom supervision, but no one The TES spoke to at the conference was willing to swim against the tide and criticise colleagues on record.

"We all use assistants to take small-group work," said a head who did not want to be named. "What's the difference between that and what the agreement proposes? It's simply a matter of numbers."


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